Why Do So Many Gifted Kids Think They Don't like Math?
Why do so many bright and gifted kids think they don't like math? Experience and the reading of lots of research leads me to believe that boredom, under-instruction and poor instruction throughout elementary and middle school lie behind the problem.
My best girlfriend since high school is a math teacher north of Philly. We've talked about this a lot. She and I are both aware that our own math instruction lacked a lot. As I give IQ tests, too, I see something that I thought many people would be interested to know. As those who have read the work of Benbow and Lubinksi, among others, know, math-reasoning ability has a huge ability spread among individuals of the same age. Even when kids are ability grouped, there tend to be outliers—people who are truly math geniuses compared to other really bright kids—in the top group. My friend Pam and I were not math outliers but we were 99th percentile people in math. Having an outlier in your class is a problem for self-esteem and confidence related to math. What I see really missing in math instruction for high ability kids who aren't outliers is twofold:
1. Their route through math during their school years is way too slow and easy for the first 8 or 9 years and then they're slammed with stuff that is really challenging and for which they aren't prepared;
2. They don't get nearly enough practice on "story problems," that is, how to recognize what needs to be done so they can set up the proper sequences and steps for solving the problems. There is far too much time spent on memorization of how to solve problems that are laid out for you (memorization of math facts, for example), and really bright kids who aren't outliers quickly become overwhelmed and conclude they aren't good at math as they see the smarter kids "get it" so quickly.
So, how can schools change the way they do things in order to promote the best learning for kids at all levels of quantitative reasoning ability? Here are some ideas:
1. Hire teachers who love and are good at math to teach kids math, starting in kindergarten or 1st grade.
2. Arrange for kids to move through math instruction at a pace that keeps them challenged while providing enough repetition for them to really “get it.” By 1st grade, the typical same-aged mixed-ability classroom already has 12 grade equivalencies of math ability in it. The outliers, the top kids (maybe only one in every other grade level of the typical school) could be ready for regular algebra instruction by age 8 or 9—at the latest! Kids who score at about the 90th percentile on math reasoning achievement tests could be easily ready by age 10 or 11. Folks, we are severely under-educating our bright students in math!
3. Make sure that all kids who have average ability or higher get lots of practice figuring out story problems. Way too much time is spent on fact problems such as 34+59 = ? We need to pose the question, “How many cookies would we have to share at the Boy Scout meeting if Peter brought 34 cookies and Paul brought 59?”
4. Make sure the outliers are grouped with other outliers as early as
possible. When they are left in the same instructional math classroom
as bright and gifted children who aren’t natural math geniuses, they are
in danger of being severely under-educated and of losing their love for
and interest in math. Get those outliers tutors or mentors, allow them
to do online learning, etc., but if you leave them in the regular or
accelerated classes, too many kids will conclude they’re no good at math
and leave fields that require much math instruction.
Finally, whether people like to hear it or not—look it up, Folks—there are more boys than girls in the category of math outlier.
Fodder for more discussion, right? Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an outlier to be outstanding at math or outstanding in a career that requires it!